As I go around the country teaching workshops on pay per click (PPC) I get asked many varied questions on search engine marketing (SEM), depending on which city I happen to be in. Larger marketers seem to have more sophisticated questions; smaller marketers tend to focus on subsistence tactics. However, one theme seems to reoccur frequently: the myth that SEM is some kind of rocket science.
Smaller businesses and many members of marketing departments at large and even Fortune 1000 companies have bought into the idea that SEM is something that can only be properly utilized by those who know the correct “voodoo” to make it work.
But really, SEM is just another form of direct response marketing and many of the same principles apply. Why else do you think those nasty 24-page sales letters work so well at driving conversions from search engine traffic? Personally, I hate those letters, but I am not their targeted audience.
The marketers who write long sales letters typically have years of experience in direct response marketing and have figured out how to use search to reach the same customers that they would target with any other marketing vehicle. They are successful because their message resonates with their intended customers (mostly Internet newbies) and they apply the same controls to their search marketing campaign as they do to any other campaign.
So how can you apply the same tactics? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating the use of long-winded sales letters with 15 calls to action set in strategically placed buttons. They may or may not work for your product – depending on your offer – whether your consumer is educated in your marketplace and your price point. What I am saying is that you too can adapt their techniques to reach your intended goal.
Here are some direct response marketing principles that should also apply to your SEM campaigns:
- It takes work. In order to truly be successful at search engine marketing you have to constantly test your response rates. Those who throw up a campaign and expect to just sit and watch the dollars roll in without any labor investment are just wasting their time. Successful marketers test copy, keywords, placement, pricing, messages, landing pages, etc.
- You have to test. In direct response marketing, testing rules is never-ending. Just like testing in direct mail, the cost of the campaign can be justified if the lift in the conversion rate is enough to offset the expense. To measure the effect, you have to A/B split-test your traffic, testing new landing pages against the old. For retail sites with thousands of products, you can minimize the expense by testing just the product pages driving the most sales. If the lift in conversion offsets the cost of optimizing the pages, keep testing and roll out new ones.
- You have to track results. Just as savvy offline marketers can tell which piece of mail and from which specific message a customer converted, you have to be able to tell which keyword, message and referrer drove your sale. Tracking is easy to do on PPC, harder on search engine optimization, but critical on both.
- Creative is key. Google rewards those with high click-through rates (CTR) on PPC by better placement, and the way to get high CTRs is to write great copy that resonates with your audience. A good copywriter can make the difference between a successful PPC campaign and one that bleeds cash. Similar to an offline campaign, online creative (i.e., your search listings) should be tested frequently because even a small lift in conversion can affect profitability.
- It’s all about the benefit. Successful marketers remember that the customers’ needs are paramount at all times. They sell on benefits, not features, and look for the messages that play on their customers’ emotional responses to their product or service. Include in your creative the things that work best such as your unique sales proposition, calls to action, list of benefits, money-back guarantees, etc. Never test more than one element at a time, or you won’t know which one contributed to the lift or falloff. Over time, you will discover offers that work only online, but like offline marketing, it comes through the same test-and-learn discipline.
- The “Lead to Sale” conversion rate is important. Just as in the offline world the key to conversions from search is providing the right hook in your listing at the right phase of the buying cycle, and then converting that lead into a paying customer with the right offer on your landing page.
- Analysis is your friend. Like any good offline campaign, you learn a great deal from analyzing your testing and conversions. Sometimes, new search engine marketers make the mistake of analyzing all their online test campaigns as one big program. This can really skew your testing as the set of results from one search engine campaign can vary dramatically from another. Likewise one set of keywords can perform significantly better than the rest; but because even changing a keyword from singular to plural can have dramatically different results, you have to test and analyze each variable separately.
- It’s all about CPA or CPL. All search engine marketing campaigns need to be analyzed in just the way you would analyze your efforts in the offline world. Cost per acquisition (CPA) or cost per lead (CPL) is your common denominator and the only number that really counts in the long term.
- Create customer loyalty.Search engines are looking more and more at how many websites link to yours. But a bunch of links from high-traffic sites are worthless unless those links drive sales. Link campaigns are too time-consuming to do them just for the sake of getting higher search engine ranking. You need customer evangelists driving more sales, and links can provide that.
Not all traffic is created equal. Just as in the offline direct response world, the 80/20 rule applies. In that world we know that 80 percent of your profits come from 20 percent of your sales. The same thing applies in SEM: 20 percent of your keywords will drive 80 percent of your sales. Obviously those are the keywords you will focus 80 percent of your attention on but you can’t discover those drivers unless you test constantly. Some keywords will bring you more traffic, but fewer conversions on the back end. Other keywords may bring you no sales, but be effective in driving branding or eliminating a stumbling block in the buying cycle.
Direct response marketing skills and experience are some of the key drivers in SEM campaigns. There are some nuances of SEM that you can only learn by experience, but if you go into it with the mindset that these rules apply you will demystify the whole experience. Regardless of the source or channel this mindset is what makes the difference between success and failure.
MARY O’BRIEN is a partner at Telic Media. She was formerly senior director of sales at Yahoo Search Marketing and is currently presenting their advertiser workshops around the country.